The present article is taken from the 47th letter of Nehru to his daughter. In this letter, Nehru examines the decline of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the middle Ages in Europe.
Letter Date: May 19, 1932
“Let’s go back and take another look at Europe.
Remember that the Roman emperor Constantine built the city of Constantinople on the shores of the Bosphorus Strait (Bosphor) on a site formerly known as Byzantium and moved his capital from ancient Rome to what he called modern Rome. Shortly afterwards, the Roman Empire split into two parts: “Western Rome”, with Rome as its capital, and “Eastern Rome”, with Constantinople as its capital. The Eastern Roman Empire was forced to face great difficulties and numerous enemies. However, it continued for centuries and lasted for 1,100 years until the Turks finally ended its life.
The Western Roman Empire did not last that long, and despite the great prestige of its name and the position of the privileged and royal city of Rome, which had long dominated the Western world, it became extinct rapidly. Western Rome could not withstand the attacks of any of the northern tribes. Alaric, one of the chiefs of the Get tribes, invaded Italy and besieged Rome in 410 AD. Then the Vandals came and plundered Rome. The Vandals were one of the Germanic tribes that crossed France and Spain and entered Africa, in the ruins of Carthage, they established a kingdom. They crossed the sea at the site of ancient Carthage and besieged the city of Rome. It was as if they were a church revenge for Rome’s victory in the Punic Wars.
Around this time the Huns, originally came from Central Asia or Mongolia, were gaining strength. The Huns were a nomadic and farmer people who settled on the eastern shores of the Danube and in the northern and western parts of the Eastern Roman Empire. When Attila took over the Huns, they became very powerful and aggressive, and the Emperor of Constantinople and the government of Eastern Rome were in constant fear of them. Attila threatened both of them, forcing them to pay him large sums of money. After Attila thus sufficiently threatened and insulted the Eastern Roman government, he decided to invade Western Rome. For this reason, he first attacked the “Gol” and destroyed several cities in the south of France. The armies of the Western Roman Empire alone could not withstand the Huns.
But the Germanic tribes, which the Romans considered “barbaric” and savage, were also terrified of the Huns’ invasion, so the “Franks” and “Goths” allied themselves with the Roman Empire and fought together with the Huns under Attila. At the site of Trois, a great war broke out between them. More than 150,000 people have been killed in this war. Attila was defeated and the Mongol Huns were forced to retreat. This war took place in 451 AD. But Attila, though defeated, still had a great war army, with which he invaded Italy and burned and plundered many northern cities, and died shortly afterwards and leaving a remarkable reputation of his cruelty and violence.
Even today, Attila the Hun is a symbol of violence, cruelty and destruction. After Attila’s death, the Huns calmed down and settled on the land where they lived, mingling with many other inhabitants.
… Forty years later, a Goth named Theodoric became king of Rome, almost ending the work of the Western Roman Empire. Shortly afterwards, one of the emperors of Eastern Rome, Justinian, tried to annex western Rome to his empire and conquer both Italy and the island of Sicily, but both soon seceded from eastern Rome and this government also had so much trouble for itself that it had to think more about defending itself.
Is it not surprising that the royal city of Rome and its empire was defeated so quickly and so easily by almost every tribe it wished to attack? It may be thought that this weakness was due to the fact that Rome was divided or because it was, in fact, like an empty, middle oyster. Maybe this is really true.
For a long time, the power of Rome was in its prestige and reputation. Its past history had led many people to regard Rome as the leader of the world and to treat it with respect and even almost a kind of superstitious fear. Rome continued to live this way, but while apparently in the form of a mighty empire, there was no real power behind its majestic name. Rome’s appearance was calm, with large crowds in its theaters and stadiums and markets, but it was inevitably doomed to extinction, not only because it was in fact a weak state, but especially because it had an aristocratic civilization which built on the poverty and slavery of the masses, its foundations were inevitably shattered.
In one of my previous letters, I told you about the revolts of the poor, as well as the great revolt of the slaves, which was violently and brutally suppressed. These riots show us how corrupt the social organization of Rome was.
Roman society was automatically on the verge of extinction and disintegration. The arrival of the northern tribes, the Goths, the Vandals, and others, contributed to this decline and extinction, and it was for this reason that these tribes faced considerable resistance and opposition in Rome. The peasants of Rome were so gloomy that they welcomed any change in the situation. The plight of the poor laborers and slaves was much worse than that of the peasants.
As we can see, with the end of the Western Roman Empire, new people like the Goths, the Franks, and others who I do not want to bother you by mentioning their names, came to the West. These new peoples are the ancestors of the nations of Western Europe today, the Germans, the French and others. Little by little we will see that these countries are formed in Europe and we see that at that time their civilization was at a very low level. The end of the Western Roman Empire was at the same time of the end of Rome glory, and the superficial civilization that had emerged in Rome disappeared in almost a day, as its origins had long since dried up.
Thus we see one of the most amazing periods in history, when humanity is visibly falling behind. This is the case in India, Egypt, China, Greece, Rome and elsewhere.
After knowledge and experience were painstakingly accumulated over many centuries and civilization and culture were created, a kind of stalemate ensued. It was not even just a pause, but a step backwards. It was as if a mask had been drawn over the face of the past; although, occasionally and coincidentally, it seemed to have manifestations of it, humanity was forced to climb the mountain of knowledge and experiment step by step. Maybe in each era, human beings climb a little higher and the next ascent becomes easier.
Thus we see Europe gaining momentum, the Dark Ages begin, and life takes on a harsh and empty form. There is almost no education, and it seems that war and strife are the only means of occupation and entertainment. Of course, the time of Socrates and Plato is far away.
That was the situation in the Western world.
Now let’s take a look at the Eastern Roman Empire. As you remember, Constantine made the religion of Christ the official religion. One of his successors, Emperor Julien, refused to convert to Christianity. He wanted to go back to ancient times and renew the worship of the ancient gods, but he could not. Because the age of the ancient gods was over and Christianity was much stronger than them. Christians called Emperor Julien an atheist “apostate” and he is known by this title in history.
Soon after Julien came another emperor who bore no resemblance to him. The name of this emperor was Theodosius and he was also called “the Great”. I think he was great because he destroyed the old temples and the statues of the ancient gods! Not only was he strongly opposed to non-Christians, but he was also strongly opposed to Christians who were orthodox and did not share his beliefs. He did not tolerate any belief or religion that he did not approve of.
Theodosius shortly united the western and eastern Roman empires and was the joint emperor of both governments. This situation arose in 392 AD, before the invasion of various Barbar tribes to western Rome, and Christianity continued to develop. It was no longer a struggle between Christians and non-Christians, but a wide-ranging struggle between different Christian denominations, with each faction acting against the other, and the intolerance they showed towards each other is truly astonishing. It had become a battleground throughout North Africa, West Asia, and Europe, in which Christians tried to make other Christian brethren believe in the truth that they themselves believed by beating with sticks and clubs and such excellent and noble means (!).
From 527 to 565 AD, Justius Nian was emperor in Constantinople. As I told you before, he drove the Goths away from Italy, and for a time Italy and the island of Sicily were part of the Eastern Roman Empire. But soon after, the Goths regained control of Italy.
Justinian created the great and beautiful Church of Santasofia in Constantinople, which is still one of the most beautiful Byzantine churches. He also compiled and regulated all the laws that existed up to that time by qualified jurists.
Although Justinian established a university in Constantinople, he closed the “academy” or ancient Greek philosophical schools founded by Plato, which lasted for about 1,000 years. Philosophy is a very dangerous thing for any religion that relies on dry concepts and solid precepts and forces people to accept everything without reason, because it makes people think.
This brings us to about the sixth century AD. As we can see, Rome and Constantinople are gradually moving away from each other. Rome came under the domination of the northern Germanic tribes, and Constantinople, although retaining the name of Rome, became the center of a Greek empire. The Roman Empire was torn to pieces and sank into the civilization of the tribes that dominated it and had a low level, the same tribes that Rome, in its glory days, called “barbaric” and savage.
Constantinople also while retaining some of its ancient traditions, was descending to a lower level of civilization. Different Christian denominations were fighting for supremacy, and Eastern Christianity, which extended as far as Turkestan, China, and Abyssinia, had lost contact with both Constantinople and Rome.
Thus the Dark Ages began. Until this time, teaching was a classical teaching of ancient Greek and Latin, inspired by the teachings of ancient Greece. But the ancient Greek books dealing with the stories of the ancient gods and with philosophy were not, in the opinion of the devout and fanatical Christians of the time, suitable for teaching and education, and therefore their teaching was not encouraged. As a result, education suffered hardships and losses, as well as many art forms.
Nevertheless, Christianity retained to some extent education, knowledge, and art. Christian monasteries, such as Buddhist “monasteries,” were quickly established everywhere. In these monasteries, old education sometimes found its place. And it was also here that the seeds of a new art emerged that blossomed several centuries later with the ultimate in beauty and manifestation called the Renaissance.
These monasteries were able to keep the torch of knowledge and art in a semi-lit state. In fact, they did a service that did not allow the torch to extinguish completely. But in any case, its light was limited to a very small environment, and outside darkness and absolute darkness prevailed everywhere.
There was another amazing tendency in that early Christian era. Many people who were strongly influenced by religious sentiments took refuge in deserts and remote areas and in a corner of isolation to stay out of contact with people. They lived there in a semi-wild state. They were austere, did not wash their bodies at all, and usually tried to hurt themselves as much as possible. This was especially the case in Egypt, where many such ascetics lived in the desert.
Apparently they thought that the more they practiced austerity and the less they washed themselves, the more sacred they became. It is said that one of these ascetics sat on a pillar for several years!
This method of austerity gradually disappeared, but for a long time many devout Christians considered it almost a sin to enjoy from everything and rejoice. This idea of austerity has given a special color to the Christian way of thinking, but today in Europe there is not much left of this idea, but it seems that there everyone tries to go crazy with great speed and so-called spend their time happily anyway, and usually this haste is often manifested by exhaustion and disgust and not with joy and happiness.
Source: A look at the history of the world, written by Jawaharlal Nehru, translated by Mahmoud Tafazli, Amirkabir Publications, Volume One.